The Arty Semite

Stefan Zweig: Literary Saint or Suicidal Schmendrik?

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

Almost 70 years after committing suicide in Brazil in 1942, the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig still divides readers.

Laurence Mintz, in a preface to the reprint of Zweig’s “Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky: Master Builders of the Spirit” from Transaction Publishers, points to how Zweig’s suicide, in safety and comfort, seemed a cop-out to many émigré Jews. In a 1943 article, Hannah Arendt scorned Zweig’s position as an “ivory tower esthete” who saw Nazism mainly as an “affront to his personal dignity and privileged way of life.”

Others, however, worship Zweig, like Jean-Jacques Lafaye, whose “Stefan Zweig: a Jewish Aristocrat at Europe’s Center” has just been reissued from Les Éditions Hermann. For Lafaye, Zweig “genuinely possessed an elite spirit, a conscience for humanity.” French Jewish doctor and novelist Laurent Seksik agrees, offering an ardent fictional account from Flammarion, “The Last Days of Stefan Zweig.”

Between these hagiographic views and Arendt’s dissing is Dominique Bona’s “Stefan Zweig: Biography” out in a new edition from Les Éditions Grasset. Bona, author of a perceptive life of Clara Malraux, focuses on Zweig’s first novella, “In The Snow,” which describes medieval Jews who freeze to death while fleeing a pogrom.

“In the Snow,” available in translation from Pushkin Press, was published in 1901 in “Die Welt,” a Zionist review founded by Theodor Herzl and edited by Martin Buber, who also reprinted it in the following year’s Jüdischer Almanach.

Yet Zweig preferred to collect books and music manuscripts rather than become a Zionist activist, although he did hire a Zionist artist, Ephraim Moses Lilien, to design his personalized bookplate. Zweig languidly opposed any nationalism, mocking his friend the German Jewish poet Ernst Lissauer, who authored the World War I “Hymn of Hate against England” and the phrase “Gott strafe England” (“May God Smite England”).

In the 1920s, Zweig socialized with many Jewish authors, including Joseph Roth and the French novelist Jean-Richard Bloch, and he re-employed Jewish themes in his 1929 novella about a Galician Jewish bookseller, “Buchmendel.”

But as Ritchie Robertson notes in his knowledgeable “The ‘Jewish Question’ in German Literature, 1749-1939” from Oxford University Press, Buchmendel is described ambivalently, and Zweig’s own ambivalence about his Judaism, coupled with his public silence about increasing European antisemitic persecution, alienated friends like Roth and Sholem Asch and continues to be irksome to some readers (outside France) today.

Watch Laurent Seksik describe his novel “The Last Days of Stefan Zweig” here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Hannah Arendt, Laurent Seksik, Stefan Zweig

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.